Fäviken – The End Of A Nordic Dream

In 2017 I found myself hooked on the Netflix show Chef’s Table. Each beautifully shot episode focuses on one of the world’s top chefs and their (often tumultuous) rise to success. I don’t watch TV as a habit, and when I do tune in, the show has to be something that’s going to enrich my life. Chef’s Table did exactly that. Though one episode more so than others – the episode about Swedish chef, forager, hunter, and gardener Magnus Nilsson and Fäviken – one of the world’s best and most isolated restaurants.

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Photo : Per-Anders Jörgensen

After just ten minutes, my heart rate was quickening with excitement, and I scribbled ‘eat at Fäviken’ on my list of ‘Things To Do In The Nordics Before I Die.’ Being who I am, a woman with a northern fever, I developed something of an obsession with this little place deep in the forests of Jämtland, and the food grown (more than half of the food diners eat at Fäviken has been grown, found or hunted in the 20,000 acres of grounds), prepared and served there. 

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Photo: Erik Olsson

Following seasonal variations is at the heart of what Nilsson does at the 16 seat restaurant, as is keeping things rustic – the dining room is located in an old barn and is decorated with a full-length fur coat on the wall and aged cuts of meat hung from the ceiling.

Whatever is available on the day – be it carrots harvested several months ago or fish that was pulled from the river that morning – is served up as a theatrical 32-course extravaganza.

The methods Nilsson uses to prepare his menu include vegetables smoked using decomposing leaves, warm marrowbone extracted from a cow’s shinbone using a two-man saw and ice cream churned in a creaky wooden ice cream maker from the 1920s. Nilsson purposefully doesn’t take great care of the machine, as the noise it makes enhances the Fäviken experience.

We do things as they have always been done at Jämtland mountain farms; we follow seasonal variations and our existing traditions. We live alongside the community.

During the summer and autumn, we harvest what grows on our land as it reaches the peak of ripeness, and prepare it using methods we have rediscovered from rich traditions, or that we have created through our own research to maintain the highest quality of the end product.

We build up our stores ahead of the dark winter months. We dry, salt, jelly, pickle and bottle. The hunting season starts after the harvest and is an important time, when we take advantage of the exceptional bounty with which the mountains provide us. By the time spring and summer return to Jämtland, the cupboard is bare and the cycle begins again.

– Magnus Nilsson

I can remember the day after I watched Chef’s Table. I went to my Swedish class and, instead of doing online study with a Swedish language app, I sneakily waded through all of the interviews and reviews of Fäviken that I could find. I wanted to know everything. When I discovered that Nilsson had written a Fäviken cookbook, it took all of my will power not to skip class and power to the library.

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An image from the cookbook.

When school was over, I practically flew to the library and went immediately to the food section, panicking that someone else would have been as enchanted about Fäviken as I had been and would have got there first. But they hadn’t. And when I found it I nearly cried. I opened it up at random and landed on a page where one of his signature dishes shone back at me – a single scallop that’s been poached in its own juices and served in a huge shell on top of a bed of moss and smouldering juniper branches. I hugged the book to my chest and hurried home to read.

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Photo : Erik Olsson

I dove into the Fäviken cookbook with an enthusiasm that I’ve never before felt for any book about food. And it didn’t disappoint.  The sumptuous narrative about one of Sweden’s most special places kept giving and giving and giving. As well as being a chef with the world in the palm of his hand, Magnus Nilsson can also write extraordinarily well. This isn’t just a cookbook with recipes – but oh friends, what recipes they are! – it’s a beautiful tale about a wondrous restaurant and the people and wild things that make it what it is.

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Photo : Erik Olsson

Time has passed since I first heard about Fäviken and relished the cookbook (Nilsson has also written The Nordic Cookbook, a humongous tome that records the past several hundred years of Nordic cooking and contains a whopping 730 recipes), but I’ve missed my chance to eat there. I will die without having eaten at Fäviken.

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Photo : Erik Olsson

You see, Fäviken shall, by the end of this year, be no more. The other day on Instagram, a post popped up from Nilsson about how this year the restaurant will close and it will never open again. He waited until the restaurant was fully booked for the year before announcing the closure. Nilsson has given one interview about the closure – to the LA Times – and that’s it.

Now, while it might seem a tad dramatic, I do feel this real sense of loss. I never doubted that I would, one day, be eating 32 courses at a barn in the far north of Sweden. But I don’t intend for my dream to die entirely…I’ll be going back to the cookbook with the goal of making every damn recipe in it.

 

Semla Season In Sweden

Yesterday was Fettisdag (Fat Tuesday) in Sweden, a day when everyone in the country eats semla buns until the blood in their veins is running sweet and they can hardly move.

While you may have heard about the Swedish king Adolf Frederick who died in 1771 after eating a meal of lobster, caviar, sauerkraut, kippers and champagne, followed by 14 helpings of semla with hot milk (a desert also known as hetvägg) you might not know what a semla (plural semlor) consists of exactly. So here I am to explain.

A semla is a  hefty sized soft wheat flour bun, that’s been flavoured with cardamon, and filled with almond paste and whipped cream. It’s probably the most decadent thing you’ll eat in Sweden. Back in the olden days, semla were eaten at final celebratory feasts before Lent. Back then though, it was just a bun soaked in hot milk.

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At some point, enough wise souls got so bored with their bun and hot milk that they decided to slice it in half and put in some almond paste and cream. Funnily enough – and thankfully – the Swedes never looked back.

While supermarkets provide everything you need to put your own together, the majority of people, including me, buy them ready made. (Though I think next year I’ll try and make a batch.)

My frugal sense has to be put to one side for the day – in ICA 4 semlor will set you back about 60kr or just under £6 – but though I silently complain about the eye watering price, I do think, as I take my first bite, ‘this was worth every bloody krona.’

Despite always feeling like a literal mountain after eating  semla (yesterday was my third year) and vowing that I won’t touch another until next Fettisdag – I lied to myself yesterday and ate another one today because I’m pregnant and I can – Fattisdagen still remains to be my favourite celebratory day of food in Sweden. And if it doesn’t become yours too, I would be sincerely interested to learn why not.

If you’re not in Sweden, but need to taste a semla, here’s an excellent recipe.

If you’re in the UK and somewhere near/or in London, quick march yourself down to The Scandi Kitchen where they have semlor available until Easter. Elsewhere in the world, a quick Google search will direct you to any nearby Scandinavian eateries where you might be able to invest in one of the best tasting things to come out of Sweden.

Katie / Your eyes in the north